Why Facebook’s Organic Reach Throttle May Be Better for Brands Than They Think

In this column, I will make a case that Facebook’s reduction of organic reach for brand pages is a win-win for both Facebook and brands. I will also assert that while Facebook’s throttling of reach is indeed an attempt to make more money, it’s not in the way you think.

But to get there, we must talk about traffic jams.

Why Facebook's throttling organic reach might be good for brands.

Growing up in suburban New Jersey just outside New York City in the ’70s, I was all too familiar with traffic jams. But it wasn’t until I started driving myself that I realized how much of the congestion was caused by roads that simply couldn’t handle the volume of automobiles trying to use them each day. (And that was without any fiddling around by the governor!)

My mother knew well the source of the problem because she’d grown up in the area. When she was a young girl pre-World War II, our town was mostly farms, and many of the side roads were still dirt, even though you could see the Manhattan skyline from the end of our street.

The main roads and highways were built for the much lower number of much slower vehicles around in those days. Then, post war, the entire area boomed like crazy. Factories, housing developments, and shopping centers sprang up, crowding right against the already-aging roadways. Planners were left with a real problem: how to manage the growing congestion of an ever-expanding population.

Today, social media networks face a very similar problem, and they have a solution: news feed filtering.

Facebook’s Growing Pains

Facebook is an excellent (and probably the best-known) example of news feed filtering. In some ways, the early days of Facebook were something like my old home town. Built for college students to keep up with their friends, the network didn’t even have or need a news feed. Most users followed a relatively small group of friends, and if you wanted to see what someone was up to, you visited their “wall.”

As the network was opened up to anyone, it began to grow rapidly, Facebook introduced the news feed. The news feed was a more efficient way to get updates on your friends. You got everyone’s status updates without having to visit all their walls.

As with just about any significant change to Facebook, there was an uproar of outrage at first. Some users didn’t like that friends no longer had to “drop by” for a visit. But once the utility of the news feed became apparent, the complaints stopped. The news feed, from then on, was Facebook as most people would know it.

Then, as we all know, Facebook became wildly popular. For many people, it was only a matter of years before Facebook virtually replaced all the individual websites and portals they used to bookmark and visit. It seemed like everyone had a Facebook profile, and more and more status updates flooded the news feed.

That was only the beginning, though. With that many eyeballs spending that much time in one place, brands and marketers wanted in — and Facebook wanted a chance at the money they could bring.

Thus Facebook Pages were born, and businesses could now create status updates that also became part of users’ news feeds. At that point news feeds began to resemble those pre-war highways in the New Jersey of my youth. More and more traffic on roads that were never designed to handle the volume. Most user news feeds began to flow too fast.

Your Facebook feed with no filters.

Enter The Brand Bonanza

As daily updates for many began to climb into the hundreds and beyond, there was no way the average user could see all, or even most, of what his or her friends were sharing. But it was to get worse.

Brands discovered that status updates pushed into followers’ news feeds were a powerful form of free advertising to a captive audience. Soon, more and more brand content began to compete for the same limited space and attention.

Such news feed clutter became a major concern for the bean counters at Facebook. So they slowly but surely began to tweak and filter what showed up in news feeds (and when, and how much, and from whom).

But why? Why should they care what happens in our news feeds? Why not let it flow and let the chips (or updates) fall where they may? We’ll return to that important question in a moment.

But first let’s look at a network that has steadfastly refused to mess with the feed.

The Facebook Throttle: Pushing It Forward

Facebook’s response to the ever-burgeoning news feeds of its users was to begin to filter them. This filtering has gone through several evolutionary steps, as detailed by Matt McGee here on Marketing Land.

First, Facebook manually tweaked aspects of the feeds in response to user feedback. People want to see more photos, so increase the preference for photo posts. People are concerned about too much branded content, so dial that back a bit.

Facebook news feed controls

This “knob turning” (as Facebook VP of Product Chris Cox called it in the McGee post linked above) was replaced by the famous EdgeRank. EdgeRank was Facebook’s first attempt at a more algorithmic approach to tuning news feeds, similar to the early days of Google’s PageRank. EdgeRank rated the relevance of potential content based on three main criteria:

  1. Affinity (how close is the relationship of the user to the content source?)
  2. Weight (how much engagement has the content received from other users?)
  3. Decay (how recent is the content?)

EdgeRank did provide more personalized news feeds for users, but it proved too easily gamed, especially via the “weight” category. As brands discovered that content that got more likes or comments was more likely to be shown to more users, they began a wild and sometimes irrational contest to get user engagement. Users’ feeds were being filled with absurd non-sequitur posts designed to do nothing more than garner likes or comments.

So Facebook began expanding and complicating the criteria of its news feed algorithm and, as McGee reported, haven’t themselves used the term “EdgeRank” for years now. While affinity, weight, and decay are still factors, many more complex factors and relationships now enter into what gets shown in a user feed, most of which we can only guess at.

The Facebook Throttle: Enhancement Or Revenue Grab?

Brands only began to notice that something had changed in Facebook’s algorithm as they realized their average reach (the percentage of their fans that actually potentially see each post) was steadily declining. Ogilvy & Mather reported that average reach had dropped from 12% in October 2013 to 6% by February 2014.

For pages with less than 500,000 likes, the reach was now as low as 2%.

Predictably perhaps, many brands that had worked hard to build large followings on Facebook were outraged, and some marketers called it a nightmare. In one well-publicized case, food site Eat24 published a “breakup letter” to announce its decision to close its Facebook page.

Some marketers and social media pundits alleged that this throttling by Facebook was based in pure greed. By throttling back organic reach, Facebook was trying to force more businesses to “pay to play” since a page could still get its content pushed out into user news feeds by paying Facebook for the privilege.

Indeed, Facebook fueled this impression when, in a leaked document intended to be seen only by some major brand partners, Facebook suggested that paid promotions on their network really were the best way to reach the Facebook audience.

Brian Boland of Facebook

Facebook’s Brian Boland

Facebook Finally Responds

In a June 5, 2014, blog post, Facebook’s VP of Ads Product Marketing, Brian Boland, wrote an extensive FAQ to answer questions about the reduction in organic reach. Admittedly, he probably didn’t help his case with the angriest of pages by reinforcing pretty much what the leaked document had said:

Like TV, search, newspapers, radio and virtually every other marketing platform, Facebook is far more effective when businesses use paid media to help meet their goals. Your business won’t always appear on the first page of a search result unless you’re paying to be part of that space. Similarly, paid media on Facebook allows businesses to reach broader audiences more predictably, and with much greater accuracy than organic content.

In other words, pay-to-play is and will be the most effective way to reach your audience directly on Facebook, at least for the foreseeable future.

Angry as it may have made some brands/marketers, however, the post also included one of the clearest explanations of why Facebook needed to restrain organic content from brands in news feeds.

Why Facebook Filters Feeds

Boland’s post reveals some interesting internal statistics about news feeds. He said that when the average user logs in, around 1,500 stories could potentially appear in their news feed. For users who follow a lot of people and pages, that figure can be as high as 15,000 potential stories.

Knowing that even 1,500 is more than anyone can absorb in a sitting, Facebook’s algorithms whittle that down to 300 that will actually make it into the feed. Those 300 are then ranked to decide which will be at the top (in the default “Top Stories” view).

Brands must also compete for placement within those 300 posts, but Facebook knew from its internal metrics that there were two strikes against showing a lot of brand updates:

  1. More and more branded content was being pushed at users as users are liking more pages than ever before (up 50% since last year), and brands struggling to compete for increasingly limited space share more content.
  2. Users spend less time on Facebook when too much branded content appears in their streams, even if that content is from brands they “liked.”

That last point is important. While users say they don’t want Facebook to filter their streams, Facebook knows otherwise. Keeping users truly satisfied is Facebook’s number one goal, as satisfied users spend more time on the site. And sometimes, satisfying a user means doing not what the user says he wants, but what his actual behavior shows he really wants.

This is where Boland’s analogy to search engines is particularly apropos.

How Facebook Is More Like Google Than You Think

For all the many differences between Facebook and Google Search, the similarities in what they need to accomplish are quite striking.

Google and Facebook more alike than they seem.

For both Facebook and Google, increasing user time-on-site is imperative. Why? Because both platforms are ultimately advertising delivery platforms. Advertising is their primary revenue source, and advertising only works when people see it. Therefore, the real purpose of both Facebook and Google is to create sites the user wants to return to again and again.

That need for eyeballs is what drives Google to invest incredible amounts of money and brainpower into constantly increasing the quality of its search results. If people time and again get satisfying answers when using Google Search, they will be highly incentivized to return.

For the same reason, Facebook must work hard to continually improve the quality of the experience of its users, and the primary battleground for user satisfaction is the quality of the news feed. Facebook must algorithmically filter the news feed because vast experience (and data) has shown them that a filtered news feed, using machine intelligence to try to anticipate what users will most enjoy seeing, produces happier users.

Happier users stay longer and keep coming back — and those users will be exposed to more ads, making Facebook more money.

Here’s where I’m going with this: both Facebook and Google must filter what their users see, and they both do it to make more money.

Why The Facebook Throttle Isn’t A Squeeze Play

Does Facebook have your brand in a squeeze play?

Does Facebook have your brand in a squeeze play?

Now here’s the application I want to make to Facebook in particular: Yes, Facebook throttles brand page organic reach to make more money. But not in order to force brands to pay-to-play.

I believe that ultimately Facebook knows the most money is to be made not from forcing brands to buy more ads and promoted posts, but from providing more eyeballs for those ads and promoted posts.

That might sound like sleight-of-hand with words, but the difference is quite real and profoundly important for Facebook to “get” (as I believe they do).

It makes no sense to build a revenue model based on trying to force money out of brands against their will. But showing those brands that Facebook can provide them with a huge amount of impressions before a highly-targeted audience of happy users if they do fork over their cash — that makes a ton of sense.

If I’m right about that — and I believe I am — then the Facebook throttle, though a somewhat risky move insofar as it angers brands in the short term, will probably be a win-win for both brands and Facebook in the long run.

That’s because Facebook is right: In a social space where 1,500 to 15,000 content pieces compete for each user’s news feed every time the user logs in, targeted paid advertising or promoted content is a brand’s best bet. But that is only valid if those targeted people are around long enough to be exposed to the ads or promoted content.

So that’s why Facebook must obey its data. And these data tell them that the setup most likely to produce users who come more often and stick around longer when they do — users who are more likely to come into contact with ads or content exactly targeted to them — is one in which there is less organic branded content in those users’ feeds.

Hit Me Back — I Know You Want To!

I realize that for managers of brands with pages on Facebook, I’ve just stated what may be a controversial position. Let’s say it, I may have just made you very angry! I welcome your pushback, but I’m hoping to hear solid reasons why I’m wrong, reasons beyond, “Facebook is just greedy and hates businesses!”

Here’s what you need to show me in order for me to admit I’m wrong about this: make a case why it would make good business sense for Facebook to force brands to spend money they don’t want to spend. I think Facebook is smarter than that. But perhaps you can convince me otherwise. I welcome your comments!

 (Stock images [three modified] via Shutterstock.com. Used under license.)

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social Media Marketing | Facebook | Facebook: Advertising | Facebook: Marketing | Facebook: News Feed | Social Media Marketing | Social Media Marketing Column


About The Author: is Senior Director of Online Marketing for Stone Temple Consulting. His primary responsibility is building the online reputation of Stone Temple while testing strategies and tactics that will benefit STC clients. He has a special reputation as an expert on Google+ and Google Authorship.

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  • http://ecommercecosmos.com/ Luiz Centenaro

    Interesting perspective Mark, regardless of why this was done it made a ton of marketers angry. I agree with you that Facebook is smarter than that and did everything based on science but the way they went about it was completely wrong. This opened up opportunities for companies like Eat24 who spent $1 million in 2013 to craft brilliant PR stunts that paid of more than their entire 2013 Facebook ad spend.

  • http://www.glendonmellow.com/ Glendon Mellow

    Mark, the vast majority of Pages I liked had well under 500,000 Likes, and many less than 1,000. For artists and illustrators like myself, it was a way to connect to other creators without looking into their personal lives.

    My own Page had only about 600 Likes (I’m a guy who paints wings on an aquatic fossil: it’s a niche). For self-published authors, webcomic artists, illustrators, indie game developers and indie bands and djs, Facebook Pages gave us a way to connect with fans. Katie McKissick wrote a nice piece on our blog, called Facebook Frustration about this loss.

    Now, we are being treated as though we have the budget of Samsung. I posted a good-bye message to my Facebook fans (which they will not likely see) with the URLs of my other sites. I also took the step of Unliking every Page on Facebook that I had amassed after 7 years.

    I *do* want to see everything: I always pick Most Recent, and if Pages I have Liked are not present, then my demographic data to FB is being given away for free: If I cannot see the updates in my feed, then as a user, the contract has been broken. My side of the bargain, updates I care about via a platform I use, is broken.

    Facebook is inches away from becoming MySpace.

  • http://profiles.google.com/trappermark Mark Traphagen

    Hi, I’m the author of this article. I welcome your comments and will be glad to respond!

  • http://profiles.google.com/trappermark Mark Traphagen

    Thanks for the comment, Luiz. I want to make clear that I’m not a Facebook apologist, and I’m not here to defend everything they did or the way they did it; I was just trying to dispassionately assess the likely business reason they did what they did.

    That being said, I don’t think the Eat24 stunt worries Facebook much. It was a one-off that no one else will be able to reproduce in the same way. I don’t thing Facebook is seeing any mass exodus by large brands.

  • http://profiles.google.com/trappermark Mark Traphagen

    Hi Glendon. As I said in another comment, I want to be clear that I didn’t write this as a Facebook apologist. Rather, I was just trying to set forth what I think is the real business reason behind what Facebook is doing.

    That having been said, I agree that a lot of smaller pages who weren’t trying to use their pages to market as much as to just keep in touch with fans have been hurt by this. Just as happens when Google makes algorithm changes, there is always collateral damage.

    The problem is that huge sites like Facebook and Google have to implement changes at scale. There isn’t any effective way they can go through page by page or site by site and decide “this one is worthy of being pushed more organically.” In order to solve their content glut problem they have to implement solutions that will affect everyone to varying extents, and that ultimately means some who weren’t doing any “harm” will get hit.

    Perhaps the lesson here is that we should never become too dependent on any platform that we don’t own. Use things like free social sites while you can, but it would be smart to be doing things to build other, more direct, connections to the audience you gain there.

    For example, I know several small companies that built incentives for their Facebook fans to come to their site and give their contact info in exchange for some giveaway or other benefit. They then worked to build those people into a proprietary community of their own outside of Facebook. Now that it’s harder to get in front of those people on FB, they are OK because they still have their audience.

  • http://www.windycityparrot.com WindyCityParrot

    I run one of the rare (20%) Facebook pages (204k likes) that still sees organic reach growth. This whole conversation sweeps a more important conversation under the rug and that’s “how to monetize our efforts”? Our page ranks #3 in the eCommerce category for engagement in april & may’s Socialbakers report but we sill see way more revenue from 4 time tested email sends per month. Much of what I’ve found on Facebook is counter intuitive. I’ve been an SEO (for my ecommece site for 12 years) One day some one is going to explain to me why on Gods green earth Facebook needs 100,000 signals to determine if a Facebook friend who’s post I liked last week, should see what I had for dinner. Caveat: lots of page saw their reach decline because their content sucks, but misery loves company and the pay to play scenario is a great hat hook.

  • http://profiles.google.com/trappermark Mark Traphagen

    That’s a very insightful comment, WindyCity. To me, social seems best fitted to brand building and audience acquisition. But many want to force direct sales from it, and then are disappointed when it doesn’t work.

    For direct sales and lead building, as I commented earlier, you are smart to invest in things like email marketing.

  • http://www.aquahabitat.com/ Spring Creek Aquatic Concepts

    Gaining much attention on facebook has always been difficult for us, but it is easier to gain a fb “like” from those who first visit our website rather than from within fb. So I just go with that. On the other hand, it is much easier to gain likes/+1s on Google+ so we have switched our focus to G+ where the more active and seemingly sharper people spend time. My feeling is the quality of consumer is higher on G+, so I am not all that concerned about facebook.

    We usually take the long-term strategy here. When google search was new, we jumped on it because it seemed to give better results. We are going to stay with that bet and rise with G+.

    In the mean time we will still post to facebook, but it will just get copies of our popular posts from G+

  • http://profiles.google.com/trappermark Mark Traphagen

    Spring Creek, I would not bet against you on that ;-)

  • http://www.socialidentities.com Hugh Briss

    In the long run they’d make more money charging a reasonable monthly fee to Page owners, the vast majority of whom will never pay to advertise or promote posts but would probably be willing to pay $10 or $20 a month to be able to actually reach the fans they worked hard to acquire. Sure, it sounds good on paper to say that a lower organic reach encourages small business owners to pay money to reach their fans, but I doubt that’s going to be the case. Most are offended and think they’ve been baited and switched, some can’t afford it, and the rest will just run an occasional ad rather than promote posts on a regular basis.

  • http://www.socialidentities.com Hugh Briss

    If you want to be sure to see all updates from your favorite Pages all you need to do is turn on “Get Notifications”. That’s also something you could have suggested to your fans so they didn’t miss any of your posts.

  • http://profiles.google.com/trappermark Mark Traphagen

    Thanks for your comment Hugh.

    Charging a fee to simply push all or most of a brand page’s posts to its fans runs counter-productive to what Facebook is trying to accomplish, and I believe ultimately it wouldn’t be good for the brands as well.

    One of the points of my article was that what brands and users think they want or is best for them is not borne out by the data that Facebook has. This is very common in human behavior studies: what people SAY they want and what they ACTUALLY choose or like in the real world are often quite at odds.

    Facebook knows that when they show too much untargeted brand content, users in general are less happy and spend less time on Facebook. That’s the fact, whether or not people SAY they want to see everything from pages they liked, or brands think that they do.

    The ease of a “Like” is part of the problem. People Like pages for all sorts of reasons. Maybe there was a contest they wanted to enter, or they saw a funny photo from the brand. A lot of those people Like a page without necessarily wanting to hear from the page all the time. You can’t assume that a Like means “please send me all your future content.”

    Returning to your “pay a fee to push everything” concept, Facebook will never do that because they know it will backfire for brands. Instead, what they offer is FAR better: pay to push selected content to a targeted audience who are far more likely to actually be interested in it.

    Also, I disagree with your assumption that “[m]ost are offended and think they’ve been baited and switched,” partly because that’s just an assumption on your part. Have you done a study on that? Do you have data to back up that “most” are offended? You’re probably making that assumption because you’ve been reading posts from a vocal minority.

    I’m betting that Facebook knows much better than you or I. Sure, some brands will give up. But they will be a barely a blip on FB’s radar. The brands with money to spend on targeted content and advertising know that it can work very well on FB when used correctly. They are not going anywhere anytime soon.

  • http://www.socialidentities.com Hugh Briss

    It’s not an assumption on my part, I run a couple Pages and groups dedicated to social media and hear that very often. As of charging a fee, there would be no guarantee that all of our posts would be seen but they could definitely unsqeeze the firehose a fair amount.

  • http://www.socialidentities.com Hugh Briss

    People know what they’re getting into when they like a Page and liking it to enter a contest is certainly the wrong reason. They can always hide some or all of a Page’s posts if they decide they’re getting too noisy. And that’s one thing that Facebook gets wrong. They give us the tools to keep our News Feed filled with what we want and hide what we don’t and instead of explaining and encouraging users to make use of the tools, they chose to do the filtering for them. Re the paying concept, they could easily turn on notifications for the Pages as the default if they paid and leave it up to users to turn it off rather than making it opt-in.

  • DJ Dyer

    I’m not buying it, they are obviously doing this for the money. And the only reason our feeds are clogged is because they are filled with all the Pages our friends also liked. I followed pages I wanted to see in my feed, not everyone else’s. But as a Page owner, which btw, my page is not a brand – and when did facebook decide that all pages were suddenly brands with deep pockets? When I registered my Page, I registered it as a community, back when facebook was free “and always well be” and Pages could be other than just brands. My page is a charity, a free lost and found site for lost teddy bears, with zero budget for advertising to boost posts. My page was also one of the first to get hit with the reach rollback a few months back and has been limping along ever since. And though we have nearly 9000 followers, only 2-5% of them ever see our posts. When it becomes 0%, we will be gone. It’s a simple case of bait and switch and with all the big brands and bands now on facebook, there’s a lots of cash to be made from their posts to their fans. Pity facebook isn’t at all interested in charity Pages who have worked hard to garner the followers they have.


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